Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them was first introduced as the 52nd edition of a textbook used by Harry Potter and his classmates at Hogwarts School Of Witchcraft and Wizardry mentioned in the Harry Potter books. In the Harry Potter Universe, Newt Scamander’s Book was first published in 1927 and became a bestseller as well as an approved textbook. Since that is all fictional, J.K. Rowling, the Harry Potter author, wrote the Fantastic Beasts book in 2001 and sales of the book benefitted the charity Comic Relief. When she was approached about turning this offshoot book into a movie, she wrote the screenplay herself, and apparently with enough ideas that it has already been decided that this is the first of a five part series of movies. Five parts.
This story is neither prequel nor sequel, just another story taking place in the same world as the Harry Potter stories. The story begins with the audience witnessing what we can assume is a dark wizard killing what might be a group of aurors. We only see him from behind, so I think the hope is that we remember his distinctive platinum blond hair in an unusual haircut. What follows is then swiftly moving wizard newspapers with bits about who he was (Gellert Grindelwald – the second most dangerous wizard behind Voldemort). Since wizard newspapers move as well as tell the news, it’s a little difficult to follow all the information these papers want to give you, but suffice it to say that Grindelwald killed some folks, is really bad news, and has gone into hiding.
We encounter Newt Scamander as he is arriving in New York from England by boat (as to why a wizard would be taking a boat…who knows). Very quickly we learn he’s got a suitcase with the aforementioned fantastic beasts in it and the latch seems to be a bit sketchy, which puzzles me, because why would you keep fantastic beats in a suitcase with a sketchy clasp?
Anyway, once he arrives in New York, he encounters Mary Lou Barebone who is anti-witch preaching on the street, and being observed by a woman named Tina. As he loses a ‘niffler’ from his case (nifflers like shiny objects and he’s outside a bank), regular New York non-magic guy (nomaj, the American word for Muggle) Kowalkski is heading into the bank to get a loan to open a bakery. He’s got a case full of baked goods that happens to look like Scamander’s case. The niffler causes some trouble and inevitably Kowalski and Scamander’s cases get mixed up. They figure this out, after the case gets opened and some creatures escape. Tina takes Scamander to the magical president/police, and gets basically shooed away.
Scamander finds Kowalski and they both get taken in by Tina and her sister Queenie (who reads minds) for the evening. Scamander and Kowalski head into the case to take inventory and find out exactly who is missing from his menagerie. Meanwhile – we also encounter Mary Lou’s family, and how anti-witch fundamentalist they are, and beaten they are. Her adopted son Credence is creepy as hell, and visited by Percival Graves, who works in the same place that Tina works – but was demoted. We also get to know Senator Henry Shaw, whose father runs the newspaper. His brother Langdon is trying to get his father to run a report about Mary Lou’s claims that witchcraft is running rampart through the city, but he’s not having it – and after kicking them out – Senator Shaw calls Credence a ‘freak’. This is a lot of characters to barely introduce in a short amount of time. Later, while giving a speech, Senator Shaw is pretty violently killed by what seems to be a magical beast. Scamander, Kowalski, Tina, and Queenie then have to track down his creatures to prove none of them attached the senator while being hunted themselves by the magical authorities.
This movie is directed by David Yates who did the last four Harry Potter movies, as well as the Legend of Tarzan from earlier this year. Being very familiar with the world, he has an ease with directing this movie, and it certainly does feel like it is a new story in a familiar universe. The 1920s era New York setting looks great, plays well, and the effects are stunning. All the creatures are beautiful – especially the Thunderbird, which is really Newt’s reason for coming to America. He is attempting to return it to Arizona.
Incidentally, the Thunderbird represents one of the four houses of the North American school of Witchcraft and Wizardry, which is called Ilvermorny, and is located in Adams, Massachusetts. The other three schools there are Horned Serpent, Pukwudgie, and Wampus - in case you were curious. The movie is very well-cast, everyone (almost everyone) feels at ease in the fantastic.
- Eddie Redmayne is wonderful as Newt Scamander. He does a great job of making it clear that he feels awkward around people, and is more comfortable around his creatures. I also love the not-so-subtle subtext of the conservation message and how important animal conservation and research is. He is desperate to protect these creatures before they go extinct and can no longer be found anywhere, and his main weapon to protect them is knowledge. He is kind, sweet, mild-mannered, and determined.
- Colin Farrell plays Percival Graves, and is an interesting choice. I don’t know who else I would have used, but his American accent is questionable at best. He’s a great bad guy, and should do that more often, but because he’s such a great bad guy, at no point do you trust this creepy character.
- Katherine Waterston plays Tina (short for Porpentina – who eventually becomes Newt’s wife). She is charming and sweet, and really is just about the perfect match for Newt as they both struggle to fit in with their peers.
- Alison Sudol plays Queenie and really steals most of the scenes she is in. The mind-reading is done subtly, and she plays it off as charming rather than invasive.
- Dan Fogler has been really fun in a lot of random things (Balls of Fury and Fanboys come to mind), but he’s really charming as Kowalski. All he wants to do is become a baker, and use his grandmother’s recipes. His awe at the magical world and creatures once he goes in is really parallel to the audience reaction, and I found it to be really inviting.
- Samantha Morton plays Mary Lou Barebone, and she’s creepy and weird. While not magical, you just know she’s going to end up wrapped up in something sinister.
- Ezra Miller plays one of her adopted children - Credence Barebone. He’s as creepy in this as he is in anything else, and really, for me, this was an issue of being unable to separate the artist from the art. I dislike Ezra Miller so much that I really found myself unable to sympathize with the character. Hopefully I will work on that prior to Justice League (no promises).
- Ronan Raftery plays Langdon Shaw, and really has very little to do but introduce the Barebones to his father and brother. I wonder if he will have more to do going forward. Speaking of which, Jon Voight plays Shaw the Senior and newspaper guy. It’s a small role, so you know he’ll show up more in future projects.
- Carmen Ejogo plays Seraphina Picquery and I really wanted more information on what was happening with her, how she got that job, and why they were so serious about hiding everything. Maybe she’ll get more going forward too?
- I love when goblins show up and I think, “that goblin really looks like Ron Perlman”, and then he speaks and sure enough – Ron Perlman is doing the performance capture for Gnarlack, a mob-style goblin with backwards fingers. You heard me right.
There are some other fairly notable pop-ins here and there that amount to cameos this time around and feel a bit over-confident in setting up things for future movies. Honestly, finding out they plan four more movies seems a bit excessive to me.
Overall, I enjoyed the movie, it’s charming and fun – but I did feel like the climax was almost bigger than the rest of the movie that lead up to it. I also felt the tone was a bit choppy here and there. Most of the movie is the crew looking for their creatures, but then at the end they have to battle a legitimate big bad. I also thought that it moved almost a little too fast. It very much feels like a set-up movie, barely introducing some characters with the intention of coming back for them later. I almost never wish for more exposition, but in this movie, I really could have used some. Again, I’m sure all that will be covered with upcoming pieces, but it would have been really nice to have a clean, clear, stand-alone adventure. I loved the creatures, the effects were beautiful and they were all entertaining! You should probably see it in 3D.
7 out of 10; Gained points for none of the creatures getting hurt or killed. One gets a little sad for just a moment, and that was tough for me, but it turns out all right! Lost points for Farrell and who he turns out to be. Actor-wise, not story wise.